It’s Rick Perry’s Party Now

Whatever happens on November 7, the lieutenant governor will be the most powerful Republican in Texas. The trouble is, few voters know him—and he’s yet to prove he’s ready for prime time.

October 2000By Comments

Why is this man smiling? Nominating Bush at the GOP convention puts Perry one step closer to the governorship.
Compiled by Wide Photos

National political conventions put on display not only the party’s first team—the nominees for president and vice president and other big names in American politics—but also the second team, those who will be the leaders of tomorrow. And so, on the first day of the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, a newcomer to the national stage appeared on television screens across America. He was tall and lanky, with dark, wavy hair, and lively eyes framed by crinkly lines that testified to long days spent under the West Texas sun. A rakish smile crept across his face to balance the hard set of his jaw. So perfectly did he represent the image of the rancher turned officeholder that he looked like an actor sent up from central casting to play the role. When he spoke, the inevitable twang in his voice was as broad as the Texas plains: “Mr. Chairman and fellow delegates, I am proud to nominate the current governor of the great state of Texas and the next president of the United States, George W. Bush.”Rick Perry had more than one reason to be proud—a friend’s success, a bit of state chauvinism, but also, for the lieutenant governor of Texas, the pure excitement of the moment when he himself began to step out from Bush’s shadow and claim his own place as the odds-on favorite to be the next governor. If Bush wins the presidency, Perry will serve the remainder of Bush’s term; if Bush loses, Perry, as lieutenant governor and leader of the state Senate, will have far more influence over the course of the 2001 legislative session than a lame duck governor. All of this must have gone through his mind as he basked in the euphoric applause that followed his nomination of Bush.

But this was not Perry’s only moment in the spotlight this summer. A few weeks before the Republican Convention, he made another appearance on television—one that was not planned, however, nor did it receive applause. It was a Department of Public Safety videotape of a routine traffic stop, aired on Texas newscasts around the state and on the Internet, that showed a cranky Perry emerging from his vehicle and complaining about being delayed after his driver had been stopped for speeding by a state trooper. The two summer videos present opposing, but equally compelling, portraits of Perry. In Philadelphia, he was a sophisticated, likable rising star with a great future. On the highway outside of Austin, he was a graceless, arrogant political neophyte who didn’t look ready for prime time.

Which one is the real Rick Perry? Although he has held statewide office for almost ten years—the first eight as the commissioner of agriculture—and was a state legislator for six years before that, few Texans outside politics and his home area north of Abilene know him well. His name identification hovers around 20 percent. His best work has been done in unglamorous and unseen roles: in interminable, suffocatingly detailed budget meetings or behind-the-scenes negotiations. The outlines of his career are fairly well known—Aggie yell leader, Air Force pilot, rancher, conservative Democrat legislator turned Republican statewide officeholder—but even among political insiders, Perry remains something of a mystery. Throughout his career, he has generated low expectations and exceeded them; his political opponents typically make the fatal mistake of underestimating him. In 1990 he surprised the Austin political establishment by defeating liberal icon Jim Hightower for the agriculture job; eight years later, with the help of Bush at the top of the ticket, he edged out respected Democrat John Sharp for the job he now holds. As the lieutenant governor, Perry surprised his detractors again by winning the trust of senators from both parties.

But he also seems unable to shed the shackles that hold his reputation down. The DPS videotape was not the only embarrassing revelation of the summer. Another public relations disaster was a hardball fundraising letter sent to Capitol lobbyists that ended up in the newspapers. The lobbyists complained that the message of the letter appeared to threaten their clients’ interests if the lobbyists or the clients didn’t ante up. In a way, Perry’s position in Texas is much like Bush’s nationally: No one questions the personal charm that has kept him on a promising career trajectory, but they do question his command of substantive issues and his maturity to handle the chief executive’s job. The good looks that have been such an asset to him are also something of a liability; for his entire political career, Perry has been described as a “himbo”—the male version of a bimbo. Can someone who reminds you of Tom Cruise really be smart? Most of the speculation about Perry’s future is limited to Austin political circles; when he gets out of town, both his pluses and his minuses are for the most part unknown, and he has the opportunity to start with a clean slate. On a blazing morning in August, I met him at a private airplane terminal for a trip to Laredo, where he was scheduled to address the chamber of commerce and meet with a group of teachers. It was the kind of pressure-free occasion a politician can use to win friends without being under the close scrutiny of the public and the media. On the flight down he talked about the book he was carrying, Stephen Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo (“This guy’s a good writer”), and a trip he took earlier in the summer, during which he and his dad retraced the elder Perry’s World War II service. When he shifted to a discussion of a family friend who was killed in the war and the letters the young man had sent home, his eyes got misty. “It’s the most poignant letter I’ve ever read,” he said of an account of the hardships of a winter in France. The history discussion was cut short when an aide informed him that we were approaching our destination. Perry studied a briefing folder as we descended through a light drizzle. Waiting on the tarmac to meet him was John Adams, the chairman of the local chamber and a friend of Perry’s for thirty years, dating back to their days together at Texas A&M. The Aggie network is one of his biggest political assets. The current regents’ chairman and several predecessors endorsed Perry over Sharp, a fellow Aggie and onetime close friend of Perry’s. On the short drive to the Laredo Country Club for the luncheon, Adams mentioned that Laredo voters had recently approved a bond issue for a special-events center that they hope to use as an ice hockey arena. Perry had been well briefed. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I mention it in my speech. I talk about how people in Laredo are going to have to learn some new terms, like ‘wrister.'” He took a swing at a phantom puck. “And ‘put the biscuit in the net.'” He turned to his press secretary. “Right, Eric?” On cue, the aide nodded.

The well-dressed crowd in the elegant dining room represented professional Laredo, with both business and government leaders in attendance. At least half were Hispanic. Perry worked his way through the crowd, pumping hands with great enthusiasm. Finally, it was his turn to speak. He made a joke about the rain, citing his dad’s wisdom (“Boy, don’t go out there and take credit for the rain ’cause then they’ll blame you for the drought”) and launched into a discussion of higher education, an issue he plans to make one of his top priorities. The presidential campaign has spotlighted children’s health problems in Texas, but Perry knew from working with the region’s senators that what business and political leaders here want most from state government is increased funding for universities (and highways) to stimulate economic development. He received a prolonged ovation for suggesting that Texas universities ought to recruit Nobel laureates with “the same effort that we used to attract [University of Texas football coach] Mack Brown.”

After another round of handshaking, during which Perry’s one-hundred-watt smile never faded, we headed for Texas A&M International University. Perry noted that the street leading to the campus, as well as a prominent building, were named for his late predecessor, Bob Bullock, who was instrumental in getting the school established. “I don’t know why they didn’t just name the whole campus after him,” Perry said. His meeting here was with a group of teachers studying a new reading curriculum. “It’s good to be on an Aggie campus,” he told the group. At one point he hoisted his leg onto a desktop and revealed a boot emblazoned with the state flag. Later, members of the mostly female audience clamored to have their picture taken with him; one woman suggested that he show off his boot again for the camera. Perry happily complied.

“I enjoy this,” Perry said on the flight home. “I like to go out and talk to people. Getting out of Austin—it’s how I pick up information. That kind of work pays off. It keeps me in tune.” But it was clear that Perry had accomplished something more. He had ventured into enemy territory—Webb County is a Democratic stronghold—and established a base in the business community. He signaled that, like George W. Bush, he is an inclusive Republican; Perry, who is studying Spanish, invoked the Bush-Perry inaugural slogan, “Juntos podemos” (“Together we can”) during his chamber of commerce speech. And, for someone whofaces a potential Republican primary challenge in 2002 from U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, he showed in the meeting with the teachers that, at fifty, his unforced sex appeal still works. While he won applause away from Austin, Perry would be the first to acknowledge that his summer has not gotten rave reviews from the Capitol crowd. First, an embarrassing e-mail came to light. Written last year by Dallas insurance executive Robert Reinarz, it claimed that lobbyist Bradley Bryan had persuaded Perry not to appoint a Senate committee to study insurance deregulation in exchange for a $25,000 campaign contribution from the industry. Insurance deregulation was not among the studies ordered by Perry during the interlude between legislative sessions, and according to the Dallas Morning News, Perry did receive $19,000 from insurance interests at a fundraiser held shortly after the e-mail was sent. Perry insists that there was no link between the contributions and his failure to order a study on insurance deregulation, and Bryan told the News that he had never spoken to Perry about the issue. Two weeks later, his June 28 run-in with the trooper made statewide news. On tape, Perry never directly asks trooper Dori Livingston not to write his driver a speeding ticket; this would have been a major political blunder. But his impatience is unmistakable as he says, “Why don’t you just let us go on down the road?” After the incident, Perry wrote a letter of apology to the trooper. Today, he says, “I had a real human moment. It was not one of my brighter moments.” Next came the controversial fundraising letter. The mailing to lobbyists contained an invitation to a September reception with an attachment listing each lobbyist’s clients, with suggested donation levels up to $25,000. While it is common for lobbyists to be asked to round up contributions—it’s the price of doing business at the Capitol—the actual checks usually come from clients. Fundraising quotas are not unheard of, but they are rarely written down. To lobbyists, the letter seemed to say, I know who your clients are, and if they don’t come up with the big bucks, I’m holding you responsible.

Perry’s explanation is that he merely hoped to determine who was really responsible for the contributions so that he could thank them properly. After his last fund-raiser, he says, he received complaints from people who felt that they had not been properly thanked. Even Perry’s friends in the lobby felt that the letter had been poorly executed. Mike Toomey, a Perry confidant who represents an HMO and a tort-reform alliance, among many other interest groups, approved the idea of the letter in advance but now concedes, “In the intervening time, after the insurance e-mail and the DPS video, some of Perry’s people should have looked at the fundraising letter and asked themselves if anything had changed.”

Taken separately, these episodes may seem trivial to the public. But cumulatively, they can be revealing to insiders. The acknowledged way for a politician to handle a traffic stop—a stratagem attributed, in a widely circulated anecdote, to Bob Bullock—is to praise the trooper for doing her job and insist that she write you a ticket because you don’t want any special treatment. The acknowledged way to raise money is to avoid any appearance that might suggest that a politician’s decisions are linked to contributions. “I learned that appearance is awfully important,” Perry says of his experience with the fundraising letter. When people don’t know much about you, and you stand at the cusp of the state’s highest office, every act will be inspected for clues into your character.

One doesn’t have to be a world-class sleuth to uncover what Rick Perry’s core values are. They are written down on a sheet of paper that Perry distributed at the start of the last legislative session. “If you know and understand my philosophy you will have a very good idea where I stand . . . ,” it says. It is an uncomplicated message: Personal responsibility. Small government. Competition. Local control. But the source of these values is not to be found in Austin. One has to drive west, long after the Hill Country has flattened into endless farmland, to a dusty collection of farmhouses, a Baptist church, and a school that constitutes Perry’s birthplace of Paint (locally pronounced “Pint”) Creek. Fifty miles north of Abilene, Paint Creek is more a community than a town. It is so isolated that the school district maintains four “teacherages”—think, parsonages—behind the schoolhouse for faculty housing. The merciless August heat scorched limp cotton fields that stretched to the horizon as I drove into Paint Creek. At midafternoon, the newest crop of the Paint Creek Pirates struggled on a parched practice field behind the one-story brick school, which serves 137 students in grades kindergarten through twelve. This is how Texas used to be a century ago, a rural state with thousands of Paint Creeks, but it is urban now, and Paint Creek seems about as far removed from modern Texas as you can get.

Two miles from the school, Perry’s parents, Ray and Amelia, live on their 10,000-acre farm in a tidy redbrick home nestled in a small grove of pecan trees, beyond which spread the ever-present cotton fields. Metal American and Texas flags mark the driveway. Perry’s family has deep roots in West Texas farming and politics. His great-great-grandfather, D. H. Hamilton, was a Confederate veteran who served as a state representative and later settled in nearby Haskell to start his farm. Perry’s grandfather farmed here too, then Ray, who was the county commissioner for 28 years, elected to seven terms as a Democrat. He and Amelia married in 1947, a year after he started farming with a lease on 312 acres. Ray bypassed college after visiting Texas A&M and being told that participation in the Corps of Cadets was mandatory. “I didn’t want to go down there and play soldier,” he says now, and no wonder: During World War II, he had flown 35 missions deep into Germany as a tail-gunner.

Instead, he threw himself into building a farm and a ranch operation that eventually grew to its present size and included two oil wells. They lived a life few Texans can imagine today. At one point Ray Perry worked his farm by day and operated heavy equipment by night on the construction of Lake Stamford. Amelia did seasonal bookkeeping for the cotton gin. Ricky, as he was known in his Paint Creek days, and his older sister, Milla (now a vice president of the Baylor Foundation in Dallas), grew up in a frame house with no indoor plumbing until he was six. The nearest city, if you could call it that, was Haskell, fourteen miles away. His mother sewed most of his clothes, down to his undershorts. Today she laughs about sending him off to Texas A&M University with “homemade drawers.” But Amelia Perry remembers her son as a content child: “He had a horse, a dog, and a full belly. He didn’t know there was anything else you could want.”

Paint Creek was the kind of place where everybody knew everybody. Perry was close to his scoutmaster, Gene Overton, and the local agricultural extension agent, Frank Martin, a polio survivor with no children of his own. Amelia recalls that when Ricky made Eagle Scout, “He went to his dad and said, ‘Frank Martin doesn’t have a son. Would it upset you if I asked him to stand up with me at the Eagle Scout ceremony?'” In his senior year in high school he was the top-ranked boy in his graduating class of thirteen students and third overall. In other years he was chosen Most Popular and Beau of the Future Homemakers of America; in the yearbook’s senior will section, a graduating student named Larry Edwards bequeathed his “good looks and romantic charm to Ricky Perry, who is in desperate need of them.”

At sixteen Perry had a date to an out-of-town football game with Anita Thigpen of Haskell—in Paint Creek terms, a city girl. He was on the team, but his arm, which had been badly broken when he was trampled by a horse that spooked when he was loading it into a trailer, was still in a cast, so he could not play. Despite the injury, Perry’s hard-nosed coach insisted that he ride on the team bus to the game and required him to handle the down marker on the sidelines. Anita rode to the game with Perry’s parents and sister. The date boiled down to this: They sat together at halftime. Their slow-starting courtship would last sixteen years and two months: He went to A&M; she went to Texas Tech. He joined the Air Force; she worked on her master’s degree in nursing. He came home ready to start farming and get married; she moved around the state, concentrating on her career. Finally, Perry says, “the planets lined up” and they married in 1982. “She’s the only girl I ever loved,” he says.

Perry chose A&M for its veterinary school, but his dreams of practicing animal medicine evaporated at the end of his sophomore year when his grades failed to measure up to the program’s highly competitive standards. What he did succeed at was politics. In his junior and senior years he was elected a yell leader. In the Aggie world, where spirit is not just limited to sporting events but is deeply embedded in the campus culture, his position was one of leadership. He built an immense network of loyal Aggie friends who remain crucial to his political success today. Ray Perry remembers helping his son drive his family’s belongings to Austin in a rented trailer after Rick’s election as agriculture commissioner; when they arrived, says the elder Perry, “about half a dozen Aggie friends showed up to help unload that stuff.”

After graduating from A&M with a degree in animal science, Perry joined the Air Force in August 1972. Military service “was kind of a family thing,” he says. “At A&M I got comfortable with the military and the camaraderie and the patriotism. I never saw a war protest in person.” He flew transport planes to such places as Germany, the Canal Zone, and Saudi Arabia. The travel, he says, only helped him appreciate home more. As the end of his tour of duty approached in 1977, he decided to go back home to the ranch. His father put him on salary his first year after which the two became partners. Rick ran the ranching operation while Ray tended to the farming. Then in 1984 the area’s state representative decided not to run for reelection. As with his decision to enter the military, Perry’s family history helped him make up his mind: He would run for the Legislature as a Democrat. In the Texas House of Representatives, a lawmaker’s influence is shaped by two things: friends, particularly in his freshman class, and committee assignments. Perry immediately became close friends with two other freshmen conservative Democrats from rural areas, Cliff Johnson of Palestine and Ric Williamson of Weatherford. The three men shared an apartment in Austin and immersed themselves in figuring out the Legislature’s often-Byzantine culture and process. Their efforts were rewarded in their second term when House Speaker Gib Lewis named all three to the powerful Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for the state budget. It was 1987, Texas was in the throes of the oil bust, and money was tight; committee chair Jim Rudd met with Perry and seven other sophomores on his committee to tell them to find massive cuts to help balance the budget. The committee table consisted of two tiers of seats, and the new members sat on the bottom tier. Their location and their combativeness in grilling bureaucrats about their budget requests earned them the nickname “pit bulls.” The pit bulls cast an estimated four hundred votes as a bloc against higher state spending. Yet, Perry was able to forge a political “odd couple” relationship with liberal Democrat Debra Danburg, whose district encompassed the Montrose area of Houston. “The pit bull sessions were tough and grueling,” Danburg recalls. “It could have been a horrible time. We told stories, so at least it was bearable.” What was it about Perry that appealed to Danburg? “Rick Perry knows more gossip than any male I know,” she says admiringly. “He knows stuff about people that would make your head spin.”

Perry had the kind of personality that can take you a long way in the House. “It’s not like Rick to try to outshine people, to try to impress people,” says Ric Williamson. “It’s not the nature of a boy raised in the country.” Veteran lobbyist Rusty Kelley, who grew up just eleven miles from Haskell, says, “We people from West Texas won’t tell you what we know. If you think we are not that bright, we won’t dissuade you from that theory.”

But behind the scenes, Perry was getting an education in politics. He attended off-the-record coaching sessions on parliamentary rules and other legislative arts given by one of the Capitol’s most knowledgeable hands—Bob Johnson, or “Big Daddy,” as he was known to his devotees. Johnson, a former House parliamentarian turned lobbyist, gave Perry and friends a post-graduate course in the legislative process over lunch in his office. In another time, Perry would have been poised to move into a major committee chairmanship, but Gib Lewis was in the middle of a five-term run as Speaker and there was little turnover among his chief lieutenants. Passed over for a leadership role in 1989, Perry realized his House career had peaked. Simultaneously, he and Williamson began discussing their growing disaffection with the Democratic party. The pit bulls had lost their budget-cutting battle in a showdown with the Senate. More often than not, the two lawmakers voted with their Republican colleagues.

Perry sensed the political winds shifting in Texas. For a rural conservative like himself, there was no hope of moving up to statewide office in the Democratic party. The Republicans, on the other hand, offered opportunity for advancement. They were also aggressively wooing converts. Some time in 1989, Perry was invited to the home of a Dallas couple, where, he recalls, he got one-on-one proselytizing from an intense young man with a famous name: George W. Bush. “He asked me to join the Republican party,” Perry recalls. It was the first conversation the two men had ever had.

In the fall, Perry announced he was switching parties. Soon afterward, he declared his candidacy for agriculture commissioner in 1990. His target was incumbent Democrat Jim Hightower, a wisecracking populist who had amassed a devoted following for his work on behalf of farmworkers but had alienated traditional rural interests like the Texas Farm Bureau. Perry cast Hightower as a far-out left-winger, even linking him to Jane Fonda in one press release. Although Democrat Ann Richards won the governor’s race, Perry pulled off an upset of Hightower, aided by Hightower’s own lackluster campaign. While Hightower advocated issues like pesticide regulation, Perry viewed his mission as having less to do with policy and more to do with promoting agriculture. His tenure was notable mainly for a flap he got into with the Farm Bureau, his onetime supporters, over his endorsement of home equity loans and other differences. After two terms, he announced for lieutenant governor in 1997 when Bullock said that he would not seek reelection. The opposition was an old Aggie buddy, state comptroller John Sharp. The onetime college friends became locked in a bitter battle, with Sharp getting the Farm Bureau endorsement. In the final days, Perry gained the advantage with the help of a $1 million loan from one of his major backers, San Antonio doctor and businessman Jim Leininger, a well-known conservative Republican and a backer of vouchers for private schools.

The Leininger loan, says Kelly Fero, Sharp’s communications director, “gave Perry increased visibility at exactly the time people were making up their minds. Some people would argue that he’s been repaying the loan ever since.” That gibe is a reference to Perry’s effort to pass vouchers (an issue Perry had embraced in the campaign) in the 1999 legislative session. He cajoled, twisted arms, and made deals for the bill, reportedly giving Senator Mike Moncrief, a Democrat from Fort Worth, a coveted spot on the budget conference committee in exchange for Moncrief’s support for vouchers. Nonetheless, the bill died after an ailing state senator hospitalized in San Antonio who was a crucial vote against the measure asked Perry not to pass the bill in his absence, and Perry, to his credit, agreed.

Other Austin politicos may have been surprised that Perry defeated Sharp, but not Perry. Democratic senator Rodney Ellis from Houston recalls getting a phone call from Perry one month before the election, asking if he could stop by and visit. Ellis, an active Sharp supporter, says he postponed the visit three times, but when the meeting finally occurred, Perry told him, “I know you are on the other side. I know there are some things that have been said that are partisan. But I think I’m gonna win, and I’ve been told you are someone I need a relationship with.” And, Ellis adds, Perry said the partisanship would end the day after the election.

The day after the election Perry called Ellis again and invited him to meet with him in Austin. What Ellis supposed would be fifteen minutes of polite chitchat turned into an hour-long discussion: “We talked about our families and issues that are important to him and me. He talked about tax cuts and vouchers. I talked about tax cuts for working people and the Hope scholarship program. We got off to a good start.”

Early in the session, Perry demonstrated his willingness to wield power by stripping two Democrats of their committee chairmanships (Ellis kept his) and removing members with other chairmanships from the powerful Finance Committee, thereby creating vacancies for his own friends and allies. While some senators in both parties protested, one of the GOP chairs who lost his seat on Finance, David Sibley of Waco, observes, “The Legislature is a shark tank. Every now and then you’ve got to kill one just to show you won’t be trifled with.”

The defining moment of Perry’s first session presiding over the Senate came on May 14, 1999, the last day, under Senate rules, for bills to emerge from committee. In serious jeopardy was a hate crimes bill sponsored by Ellis in response to the racially motivated dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper the previous summer. Republicans opposed the harsher penalties proposed for crimes targeting racial and religious groups, as well as homosexuals. Ellis’ bill was stuck in committee, and a group of Democratic senators were threatening to shut down all Senate business with a filibuster to protest its demise. Summoning Ellis to meet with leading Republican senators in his office, Perry began hours of shuttle diplomacy. In the end he failed to produce a compromise, but the discussions allowed emotions to vent and goodwill ultimately to prevail.

Once again Perry had profited from the gift of low expectations. He finished the session with positive reviews from lawmakers, lobbyists, and the press. Even Democrats who lost power under the Perry administration credited him with an evenhanded touch. In a conversation after the Laredo speech, the area’s senator, Democrat Judith Zaffirini, said that Perry had worked hard for issues important to her constituents like increased infrastructure funding for the border area. Once riled because Perry had cut her duties as the chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee in half (she got human services; a Republican senator got health), she now says, “We get along fine. He’s been accessible.”

It has been a long climb for Rick Perry, from outdoor plumbing and home-sewn underwear as a child to one step from the governor’s mansion—a background that is almost unthinkable for an urban state governor in the twenty-first century. For the moment, he can do nothing but wait. His immediate fate depends upon what happens to George W. Bush. Perry has made his intention clear to run for governor in 2002, either as the incumbent (if Bush wins) or for the open seat (if Bush serves out his term). His aggressive pursuit of donations has yielded $5 million for his campaign account as of late June. His campaign has planned events this autumn in Houston, Dallas, and Austin. “I’m preparing,” Perry says. “I believe in being prepared.”In the legislative session that begins in January, he will be under serious scrutiny for the first time in his political life. Bush’s three sessions passed without a crisis, but Perry’s timing might not be so fortuitous; the former pit bull could be faced with a budget crunch. The minefield of redistricting also awaits, which means that partisan warfare could break out at any time as Republicans try to get solid majorities in both houses and Democrats try to hold on to what they have. Whether he is governor or lieutenant governor, Perry is likely to have a simple legislative program led by improvements in higher-education, an area that was neglected during the Bush years.

Two major obstacles now await Perry. One is the potential challenge from Kay Bailey Hutchison. Many Republicans hope desperately to avoid a GOP primary bloodbath in 2002 between their two most popular officeholders after George W. Bush. But if Perry stumbles during the legislative session and is seen as vulnerable to a Democratic challenge in the governor’s race, Hutchison’s entry into the primary would be better received. The other obstacle to a smooth session for Perry is a less-than-cordial relationship with Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney. The chilliness dates back to the Speaker’s race of 1992, when Perry—then the agriculture commissioner—supported Jim Rudd, his old pit bull chairman, against Laney. Likewise, Perry has sometimes irked Laney by campaigning for Republicans running for state representative, because each Republican elected threatens Laney’s base of support in a House where Democrats have a precarious 78-72 majority.

Perry attributes his support for Rudd to loyalty. It is a common thread in his political life; his committee appointments as lieutenant governor rewarded GOP senators who had strongly supported him with chairmanships. On the plane ride home from Laredo, he talked frankly about how his loyalty has sometimes cost him politically, the enmity of Laney being the prime example.

“I’ve paid a price,” he says. It’s true: He is regarded as the most partisan of all the GOP statewide officials. But, Perry explains, after switching parties, he felt he needed to establish credibility with his new teammates, so he agreed to help with campaigns. “I had a dilemma,” he says. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Will you help us?'” To Perry, each invitation was a loyalty test, and he wasn’t about to fail. His chief political rival, Hutchison, never had to face that problem. “Kay didn’t have to prove any loyalty. She’s there. I wasn’t.”

Perry insists that he has tempered his partisan activities since becoming lieutenant governor because the role requires him to work with Democrats. “I was a lot more partisan as ag commissioner,” he says. “In an election, I work hard for my side. After the votes are counted, I say, ‘We had an election, now let’s go work together.'”

Suddenly he finds the perfect metaphor and leans forward in his seat. “It’s like higher education,” he says. “In the Capitol, I’m for everybody. On Thanksgiving Day, I’m gonna be for the Aggies.”

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